“The delightful start of a promising new series. I couldn’t put it down!” —Waverly Fitzgerald, author of Dial C for Chihuahua
“Murder Strikes a Pose is a delightful debut novel . . . Namaste to Weber and her fresh, new heroine!” —Penny Warner, author of How to Dine on Killer Wine
To Solve a Murder, Yogi Kate Strikes a Sleuthing Pose When George and Bella—a homeless alcoholic and his intimidating German shepherd—disturb the peace outside her studio, yoga instructor Kate Davidson’s Zen-like calm is stretched to the breaking point. Kate tries to get rid of them before Bella scares the yoga pants off her students. Instead, the three form an unlikely friendship. One night Kate finds George’s body behind her studio. The police dismiss his murder as a drug-related street crime, but she knows George wasn’t a dealer. So Kate starts digging into George’s past while also looking for someone to adopt Bella before she’s sent to the big dog park in the sky. With the murderer nipping at her heels, Kate has to work fast or her next Corpse Pose may be for real. $14.99 US / $17.50 CAN ISBN 978-0-7387-3968-7
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more praise for murder strikes a pose “Murder Strikes a Pose, by Tracy Weber, is a delightful debut novel featuring Kate Davidson, a caring but feisty yoga teacher … Namaste to Weber and her fresh, new heroine!” —Penny Warner, How to Dine on Killer Wine “[T]his charming debut mystery … pieces together a skillful collage of mystery, yoga, and plenty of dog stories against the unique backdrop of Seattle characters and neighborhoods. The delightful start of a promising new series. I couldn’t put it down!” —Waverly Fitzgerald, author of Dial C for Chihuahua “Three woofs for Tracy Weber’s first Downward Dog Mystery, Murder Strikes a Pose. Great characters, keep-you-guessing plot, plenty of laughs, and dogs—what more could we want? Ah, yes—the next book!” —Sheila Webster Boneham, author of Drop Dead on Recall
Murder Strikes a Pose
Murder Strikes a Pose A Downward Dog Mystery
Murder Strikes a Pose: A Downward Dog Mystery © 2014 by Tracy Weber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Midnight Ink, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. First Edition First Printing, 2014 Book design by Donna Burch Cover design by Kevin R. Brown Cover illustration by Nicole Alesi/Deborah Wolfe Ltd. Edited by Connie Hill Midnight Ink, an imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Weber, Tracy, 1964– Murder strikes a pose : a downward dog mystery / Tracy Weber. — First edition. pages cm ISBN 978-0-7387-3968-7 1. Women—Fiction. 2. Homeless men—Crimes against—Fiction. 3. Yoga— Fiction. 4. Seattle (Wash.) I. Title. PS3623.E3953M87 2014 813'.6—dc23 2013030623 Midnight Ink Llewellyn Worldwide Ltd. 2143 Wooddale Drive Woodbury, MN 55125-2989 www.midnightinkbooks.com Printed in the United States of America
dedication To my sweet puppy-girl, Tasha, the inspiration for this book. Youâ€™ve taught me patience, courage, and unconditional acceptance. You will always be the love of my life.
acknowledgments Writing a book is like raising a child. It takes a village. My village contains a huge network of supporters who encouraged me long before I believed this novel would ever come to fruition. I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention many of you, but that doesn’t mean your assistance is any less appreciated. To my yoga students, particularly those in my yoga teacher training programs: Thank you for having faith in me and patiently listening to my never-ending litany of writing updates and Tasha-dog stories. Without your encouragement, I never would have persevered through the challenging process of getting published. Joan, Claire, Larra, Mary, and Frankie, thank you for reading my early drafts and giving me insightful feedback that made the work stronger. Marta Tanrikulu, without your editing support, the book would never have been publishable. I recommend your services to other writers every chance I get. Margaret Bail, my fabulous agent, thank you for taking a chance on a newbie author and working at lightning speed to make her dream come true. And to Terri Bischoff, Midnight Ink editor extraordinaire, a special thank you for seeing the potential in this book. Last, but never least, a huge thank you to my husband Marc for the support he has given me, both in writing and in running my yoga studio. Marc is also the fabulous developer who created my studio and author websites. Being married to a small business owner is tough—to a writer, even tougher. Marc had the challenging destiny of marrying both. Thank you, Marc, for being you. I always appreciate you, even if I don’t say it enough. Namaste (The light in me acknowledges the light in each of you.)
I laid my body on the cool wood floor, covered up with a blanket, and prepared to die. Metaphorically, that is. Corpse Pose’s ten-minute rest always soothed my stressed-out nerves, and for once I didn’t feel guilty about the indulgence. My to-do list was blank, Serenity Yoga’s phone was silent, and I had a whole blissful hour between clients to do my favorite activity: practice yoga. Even my eclectic Greenwood neighborhood seemed uncharacteristically quiet, lulled by Seattle’s rare afternoon sun. The residents of the apartments above the yoga studio were off at their day jobs; the alcohol-addicted patrons of the block’s two dive bars slept off their Jim Beam breakfasts; the soccer moms shopping at next door’s upscale PhinneyWood Market purchased the day’s supplies in unusual silence. I wiggled my toes under a Mexican blanket, covered my eyes with a blue satin eye pillow, and inhaled deeply. The ooey-gooey smell of Mocha Mia’s chocolate caramel cake wafted from across the street 1
and filled my nostrils with sweet toffee-scented bliss—my all-time favorite aromatherapy. Paradise. Simply paradise. I released my weight into the earth and silently coached myself, exactly as I would one of my students. OK, Kate. Feel your body relax. Notice the random fluctuations of your mind and— A vicious snarl ripped through the silence, startling me out of my catnap. I sat straight up, eye pillow falling to the floor with an undignified thump. What the heck? When had a dog fighting ring moved into the neighborhood? A dog fight was the only plausible explanation for the commotion outside. Bursts of deep, frantic barking were followed by highpitched yelping, all punctuated by the peace-shattering sounds of angry yelling. The phrases I could make out confirmed my suspicions. This had to be a dog fight, albeit one-sided. “Control your dog!” “Get that vicious beast out of here!” And even a simple, “What the hell?” I closed the door between the yoga room and the studio’s lobby, hoping to block out the intrusive sounds. Snarls, shouts, and an occasional ear-piercing shriek continued to reverberate right through the wall. Undaunted, I imagined that the sounds were merely clouds floating across my mental horizon. Most of those clouds were dark and ominous, like the deep thunderclouds preceding a hailstorm. But every so often I heard a soft voice, more like the fluffy clouds of childhood summers. I couldn’t quite make out his words, but I could tell that the speaker was a man. From his tone, I assumed he was trying to calm beasts both human and animal. 2
It wasn’t working. Neither, for that matter, was my attempted meditation. I’d obviously have to shift tactics. I tried drowning out the clamor with low, soft chanting. Then I increased the volume. But even as I belted out Om Santi, my favorite mantra for peace, I felt my jaw start to tighten. My fingernails bit deeply into my palms. My shoulders crept up to my ears. An entirely different mantra began pounding through my head: Don’t get me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. A series of yelps and the words “I’m calling the cops!” zapped me like a cattle prod. I leapt from my mat and stormed across the floor, determined to put a stop to that infernal racket. I hurled open the door and came face-to-face, or rather face-to-snout, with the source of the commotion. Not more than five feet away from the studio’s entrance stood a paunchy, dark-haired man and the biggest, skinniest, meanest-looking German shepherd I had ever seen. Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs. I love them, in fact. It’s their human counterparts I could sometimes do without. But this frothing beast was no Rin Tin Tin. A long line of drool oozed from its mouth. Its sharp white teeth glinted in the sunlight, and its wiry black topcoat still stood on end from the prior scuffle. The dog was obviously rabid. I didn’t recognize the man standing next to the frightening creature, but I did recognize his activity. He worked as a vendor for Dollars for Change, a well-regarded local newspaper that published articles about homelessness and poverty while employing those same homeless individuals as salespeople. Ordinarily I would have welcomed one of their vendors outside my business. If nothing else, supporting the paper demonstrated yoga’s principles of kindness and compassion.
But this was not an ordinary circumstance. I absolutely could not allow that disgusting dog to raise a ruckus outside my studio. The prenatal class would have a fit. Suffice it to say that pregnancy hormones didn’t always leave expecting moms in the best of moods. My moms-to-be liked their yoga practice. They needed their yoga practice. And they needed to be serene while doing it. If a noisy dog fight disturbed their peaceful experience, I’d be the one getting barked at. Thinking less than yogic thoughts, I marched up to the pair, determined to put a stop to the chaos. “What in the world’s going on out here?” The human half of the dastardly duo held a leash in one hand, newspapers in the other. He smiled at me and said, “Sorry about all the noise. I’m George, and this here’s Bella. What’s your name?” “Kate Davidson, but—” “Well, nice to meet you, Kate. I’d shake your hand, but mine are full, so Bella will have to do it instead.” The vicious beast walked up and calmly sniffed my hand. I prayed she wasn’t about to ingest my fingers. “Bella, say hello!” Upon hearing her owner’s command, the giant hairy monsterdog immediately went into a perfect sit and sweetly offered me her paw. Maybe she wasn’t rabid after all. Just huge and ill-mannered. “Don’t mind Bella,” he continued. “She’s very friendly to people. She just doesn’t like other dogs much. She’d be fine if people kept their unruly mutts to themselves, but they think if their rude dog wants to play, Bella has to as well.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t understand some people!” I tried to interrupt, to tell him that his dog was the problem, but he didn’t give me the chance. 4
“Bella and I are new to this neighborhood, and we’re supposed to sell papers near the market. I tried setting up by the north entrance, but there’s a pet store at that end. Pete’s Pets, I think it’s called? The owner was a nice enough guy and all, but selling there was a disaster with all those dogs going in and out. Bella wasn’t happy at all.” He shrugged. “So I guess we’re going to have to hang out here instead.” I bit the inside of my lip and considered my options. Up close, George wasn’t exactly the paragon of health I wanted standing outside my business. His friendly smile exposed yellowed teeth in need of significant dental care, and if the sharp, ammonia-like smell was any indication, neither he nor Bella had taken a bath in quite some time. At three-thirty in the afternoon, I could smell whiskey on his breath, and I suspected this most recent drink hadn’t been his first of the day. It would also likely be far from his last. I only knew one thing for certain: if George didn’t frighten my students away, his loud, intimidating, fur-covered companion would. I needed them to leave, but honestly, I didn’t want to say it out loud. After all, I taught yoga for a living. People expected me to be calm and collected at all times. I wasn’t allowed to be mean, or even irritated, for that matter. I hesitated as I tried to come up with the perfect words to make him want to move, if not out of the neighborhood, then at least across the street. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), one of my favorite students picked that very moment to walk up with her five-month-old Lab pup, Coalie. “Hey, Kate!” she said. “I hoped I’d run into you! Do you still have space in your Core Strength class tonight?” Coalie was as rude and friendly as Labs everywhere. She couldn’t stop herself if she tried. She ran up to Bella, wiggling her entire body with glee, and covered Bella’s muzzle in sloppy wet puppy kisses.
Bella wasted no time. Faster than a 747 and stronger than a freight train, Bella pinned Coalie to the ground between her front legs, snarling and air-snapping on either side of Coalie’s neck. I heard the sound of canine teeth chomping together and imagined soft puppy bones shattering between them. My student screamed. Coalie yelped. George grabbed Bella’s collar while I reached in between razor-sharp teeth to pull Coalie from the jaws of death. The three of us wrestled the two dogs apart, but not before my student almost died of heart failure. “What’s wrong with you?” she yelled. “Keep that vicious monster away from my baby!” George quickly apologized, but said, “No damage done. Bella was just teaching that pup some manners.” He pointed at Coalie. “See, it’s all good!” Coalie, oblivious with joy, seemed unscathed and ready to dive in again. Tail wagging and butt wiggling, she pulled with all her might, trying desperately to get back to Bella. Bella had other plans. She sat next to George, glaring directly at that pup with a patented Clint Eastwood stare. Go ahead, she seemed to say. Make my day. My soon-to-be-former student ran off as quickly as her legs would move, dragging the still-happy puppy behind her. “See you in class tonight!” I yelled to her rapidly retreating back. I doubted I’d be seeing her anytime soon. Yoga reputation be damned. I had to get rid of this guy. I put my hands on my hips and stood nice and tall, taking full advantage of my five-foot-three-inch frame. “Look. I can’t let you stay here with the dog. She’s obviously frightening people. You have to leave.” I paused a moment for emphasis, then added, “Now.” George stood a little taller, too. “Look yourself, lady. The last time I checked, I’m standing on city property. I have every right to 6
be here. You don’t own this sidewalk, and you can’t stop me from making a living on it.” He glared at me, sharp eyes unblinking. “We Dollars for Change vendors are licensed, and no matter how much you don’t like us, the city says we can be here.” “There’s no ‘us’ I don’t like,” I replied, frustrated. “It’s your dog. And you may have every right to be here, but the dog is another story. What do you think Animal Control will do if I report a vicious dog attacking people outside my store?” George stepped back, pulling Bella closer. Seattle had the toughest dangerous dog laws in the nation. We both knew what would happen if I made that call. “You wouldn’t do that!” he said. “Bella’s never hurt anyone.” I planted my feet stubbornly. “Try me.” George gave me a wounded look and gathered his papers, shoulders slumped in depressed resignation. “OK, we’ll go. But I thought you yoga people were supposed to be kind.” He shuffled away, shaking his head and mumbling under his breath. Bella followed close by his side. “Crap,” I muttered, watching their slow departure. “Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap.” He was right. Like all good yoga teachers, I had extensively studied yoga philosophy and tried to live by it. The teachings were clear: A yogi should respond to suffering with active compassion. And George was clearly suffering, whether he realized that fact or not. Threatening to call the cops on George’s dog may have been active, but it wasn’t all that compassionate, to him or to Bella. I felt like a cad. My solution probably wasn’t what the teachings had in mind, but it was the best I could come up with on short notice.
“Hang on there a minute!” I yelled as I ran to catch up with him. Out of breath, I said, “You’re right. I overreacted, and I’m sorry. How many papers do you have left to sell today?” George stopped walking. When he turned to look back at me, his eyes sparkled with an unexpected hint of wry humor. “About thirty.” The calculations weren’t difficult. I wasn’t completely broke— yet—but thirty dollars wasn’t a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, my Monday evening classes were popular, and I had to get this guy away from the front door. Mentally crossing my fingers that the toilet wouldn’t break again, I said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” I hurried back to the studio and grabbed thirty dollars from the cash box. “If I buy all of your papers, will you be done for the day?” “Yes ma’am, and that would be very kind of you.” He gave me a broad, yellow-toothed smile. “Bella and I appreciate it very much.” He took the money, left the papers, and wandered off, whistling. Bella happily trotted behind him. “Well, that wasn’t so difficult,” I said, patting myself on the back. “I should follow the teachings more often!” I went back inside and finished my considerably shortened practice. I chose to ignore the quiet voice in my head telling me I’d just made a huge mistake.
I don’t know what possessed me to think that becoming George’s best customer would keep him away from the studio. It must have been one of those mental delusions the Yoga Sutras warned me about. Less than twenty-four hours later, I was elbow-deep in my least favorite activity—updating the studio’s database—when the Power Yoga class entered Savasana, a pose of quiet rest. Vedic chanting flowed from the studio’s speakers, filling the lobby with sounds of cherubic bliss. Ahhhh … just the excuse I was looking for. I cracked open the door to the yoga room, intending to eavesdrop as the instructor lulled her students into a state of samadhi— yoga-induced ecstasy. I returned to my chair, leaned back, and closed my eyes, mentally transporting myself out of the lobby and into the practice space. In my mind’s eye, I savored the room’s peaceful atmosphere. Dimmed incandescent lights reflected off unadorned yellow-beige walls, illuminating the space in a soft golden hue; meditation candles 9
cast dancing light beams along the maple floor; a fresh-cut bouquet of soft pink tulips decorated the altar, symbolizing the rebirth of spring. The room currently held twenty practicing yogis, but in my imagination, it was mine. All mine. I practically purred, feeling as contented as a recently fed kitten. The teacher’s voice soothed my nerves and dissolved salt-like grains of tension from behind my eyes. “Release your weight into the mat. Imagine that your muscles are made of softened wax, melting on a smooth, warm surface.” My jaw muscles loosened. My shoulders eased down from my ears. She continued her spoken lullaby. “With each inhale, imagine a white light entering the crown of your head and pouring through your body, illuminating every cell.” A soft sigh escaped from my lips. “With each exhale—” The now-familiar sound of barking drowned out the teacher’s voice and jolted me awake. Loud, angry barking. My momentary tranquility vanished. As if in one motion, my jaw tightened, my shoulders lifted, and my hands clenched into tight fists. An embarrassing litany of swear words spewed from my lips. I jumped up from the desk and frowned out the window. George and Bella were outside my door again, this time with a much larger stack of papers. Bella was no happier than the day before at the parade of dogs passing by. How dare they think they could walk on her sidewalk! George couldn’t have picked a worse place to hawk his wares if he tried. The walkway in front of the studio was practically a canine superhighway. It connected the building’s parking lot to its streetlevel businesses. Serenity Yoga occupied the southern-most unit. The north end was home to the promised land of doggy delights 10
known as Pete’s Pets. The PhinneyWood Market and Zorba’s Greek Deli separated the two. As of this moment, the only thing keeping Seattle’s treat-starved canines from an infinite supply of dog cookies was the sidewalk’s newly acquired guard dog, Bella. If I wanted Serenity Yoga to live up to its name, I’d have to come up with a better strategy than buying the daily production of newspapers. My customers didn’t look at all peaceful as they grumped out of class. Neither did their teacher, for that matter. She stared out the window, scowling. “Who’s the guy with that awful dog, Kate? Can’t you make him leave?” I smiled, pretending to be in charge. “Don’t worry. I’ll deal with it.” Though I have no idea how. I joined George and Bella on the sidewalk. “How’s it going today?” “Sales are OK, but I’ve got lots of papers here if you need some more,” he replied, grinning. I couldn’t help but grin back. I may have been stubborn, but I knew when I’d been outsmarted. “Look. We need to come up with a compromise. You obviously want to set up shop here, and you’re right; you have every legal right to do so. But I can’t have the noise, much less the terrified customers. What do you propose we do?” “It’s not Bella’s fault, you know. I’ve trained her some, and she’s a good dog.” He smiled at Bella, scratching the soft spot behind her ears. “You’re a good girl, aren’t you, sweetie?” Bella let out a heavy sigh and leaned into his touch. “She just never had a chance to get to know other dogs very well.” I suspected he was skillfully changing the subject, but I didn’t press him. I asked another question instead. “Why not?” I asked. “Is she a rescue?”
“Sort of. You see, before I got this paying gig, I used to live down south in a park near this ritzy neighborhood. Nice houses, great big yards, obviously plenty of money. People there throw away more food every week than most people eat in a month. I made out pretty good.” “They let you go through their trash?” “Not exactly, but they didn’t stop me, either. That’s one nice thing about being homeless. People don’t see you. They don’t want to see you. It reminds them how good they’ve got it and makes them feel guilty, you know? Most of the time Miss Bella and I just blend into the background.” I had a hard time imagining this man-beast combo blending in anywhere, but I let it go. George continued his animated speech, barely even pausing for breath. He was obviously a practiced storyteller—and I had a feeling he’d shared this particular tale many times before. “Honestly, people would be shocked if they knew how much I see and hear. And I’m no dummy,” he said, emphatically shaking his head. “Most folks assume I’m too stupid or lazy to make it on my own, but I wasn’t always homeless. I even used to have my own business. But people look right on through me as if I’m not even there. “Anyway, this little puppy showed up at one of those houses one day. No more than three months old.” He leaned down and ruffled Bella’s ears. “Cutest little thing you ever saw, weren’t you, Pumpkin? And would you believe it, they chained this lovely girl here up to a stake in the yard. I guess they thought she was a guard dog.” His lips wrinkled in disgust. “Those fools never played with her, never even took her out of that yard. Not once did I see them give her any affection. As if giving her a few kibbles and buying a stupid dog house were enough to 12
make her want to protect them and their precious belongings. I watched for over two months as they let this little girl grow more and more frustrated. Of course she started barking and digging and whining. Who could blame her?” “Didn’t she bark at you?” I asked. “I mean, if you were prowling around her yard, I’d assume she’d have sounded the alarm.” “Nah, she liked me, poor little thing.” George knelt on the ground and hugged Bella close. “I was the one person in her life that actually paid attention to her. I’d come by late at night when everyone was asleep. I’d talk to her, scratch her ears—I’d even share some of my loot from the trash. She and I became best buddies. “Well, one night she started howling; lonely, I think. The noise must have royally pissed the creep who owned her, because he marched right out of that fancy house of his and kicked the crap out of her.” His eyes hardened. “And her still a puppy! Well, that was it as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t stand there and watch him abuse this sweet little thing. I waited a couple of hours, until I figured he’d gone back to sleep. And then I marched right into that yard, unhooked her chain, and took her. She’s been with me ever since.” “Wait a minute” I interrupted. “You stole her?” George stood up tall, holding his head high. “No, ma’am,” he said, sounding slightly offended. “Absolutely not. I have my vices, that’s for sure. But I am not a criminal, and I do not steal. No way. I rescued her.” Snatching a puppy from her own yard sounded a lot like stealing to me, but I decided not to argue the point. “Of course, I couldn’t stay down south anymore. That jerk might not recognize me, but he sure as heck would know his property. Bella and I went on the road that night and came up here to Seattle.
That’s been almost a year now. Saving Bella was the best thing I ever did.” It was a beautiful story—but beside the point. “Regardless of how you got Bella,” I interjected, “we still have a problem. She can’t stay here. Why don’t you leave her at home while you work?” George’s face remained deadpan. “Ma’am, not to state the obvious, but we’re homeless. Where exactly would I leave her?” I had to admit, he had a point. I looked up and down the block, trying to come up with a solution. Seattle prided itself on having more dogs than children, so finding a dog-free zone to park Bella wouldn’t be easy. The sidewalk on my side of Greenwood Avenue would never work. Hundreds of animals walked this path daily on their excursions to Pete’s Pets. The other side of the street didn’t look much more promising. Tying Bella to the bike rack on the corner might work, but the nearby crosswalk would be problematic. I scanned farther south. Mocha Mia, the neighborhood’s most loved coffee shop, had an outdoor sitting area that was shaded by large green and white umbrellas. Unfortunately, it was also pet-friendly. On warm days the crowded, chainedin space was practically a doggy day care. Tasmanian Devil-like whirlwinds of fur, coffee, china, and baked goods flashed through my mind. No good. My eyes finally landed on the block’s most infamous dive bar, The Loaded Muzzle. The retail space next to it had been empty for months. Only the most desperate of drinkers ventured to that end of the block. If Bella barked at those poor souls, they’d be too anesthetized to notice. I pointed to a half-dead tree between the two businesses. “Why don’t you tie her over there? That part of the sidewalk doesn’t get much foot traffic, and there’s plenty of shade.” 14
George looked downright insulted. He forcefully shook his head. “No way. I’d never leave Bella over there by herself. That place is scary. Besides she goes crazy when she’s tied up alone—sometimes she even hurts herself trying to get loose. She’s still scarred from what that jerk of a prior owner did to her. She only feels safe when she’s with me.” He crossed his arms. “Bella and I stick together. We’re family.” George and I were clearly at an impasse. I would never call Animal Control, and he knew it. Time ticked on as we stared at each other, each waiting for the other to give ground. Finally, inspiration struck. “Wait here,” I said. “I have an idea.” _____ The chime on the door to Pete’s Pets sang out brightly as I walked into a veritable cornucopia of pet delights. Brightly colored squeaky toys, rhinestone-studded collars, and a thousand varieties of designer pet foods lined the shelves. These were obviously not Alpo dogs. “Welcome to Pete’s Pets. May I help you?” Those words came from a man with the most gorgeous bluegreen eyes I’d ever seen. That’s all I noticed before I realized the rest of his face was hidden behind a scraggly, disgusting beard. Beards always gave me the shivers, and not in a good way. I knew it was superficial of me, but I couldn’t stand beards, and I tried not to get too close to the people underneath them. My best friend Rene teased me incessantly, claiming I exhibited all the classic signs of pogonophobia. Clearly she exaggerated. Just because some psychologist coined a fancy term for “fear of beards” didn’t mean I was neurotic. It was completely understandable, really. Whenever I saw a beard, I wondered what its wearer was hiding. I could never get past the 15
defects that might be buried underneath all that unsightly hair, not to mention the food crumbs, saliva, and multilegged critters that might have taken up residence inside. In a word, gross. So in spite of his cool eyes, thin waist, and approximately six-foot frame, this man was not my type. Bummer. I got right down to business. “Hi. I’m Kate, and I need to buy the biggest cage you have.” “Sorry, we don’t sell bird supplies, but I can give you directions to an aviary supply store in Ballard. What kind of bird do you have?” “No, I need a dog cage.” “Oh,” he replied, looking surprised. “You must mean a crate! Follow me and I’ll show you where they are.” We walked past bright yellow tennis balls, a zoo’s worth of stuffed animals, and carefully balanced pyramids containing every kind of dog treat imaginable. We finally arrived at the back of the store and an area littered with so-called crates of all different shapes and sizes. Some were made of plastic, others of wood. Some contained metal rods that looked unmistakably like jail bars. Each boasted four walls, a ceiling, a floor, and a door with a lockable front. Frankly, they all seemed like fancy cages to me, but who was I to argue? “Now, what kind of dog do you have?” “It’s not my dog. But I think it’s a German shepherd. A big one. I mean huge.” I spread my arms out as wide as they would go. “So a cage that fits something between a large horse and a small elephant will probably do.” He laughed. “A big shepherd used to hang out here with her owner, but they moved down by the yoga studio.” He paused. “Hey, wait a minute, I recognize you! Don’t you work there?” “I own it, actually. And that shepherd’s the dog I’m talking about. She’s freaking out my customers. I hope if we put her in a cage, she 16
won’t bark and seem so threatening. Otherwise, I’ll have to dig an access tunnel to my business underneath the sidewalk.” “I know what you mean,” he said, grinning. “Bella’s actually a pretty good dog, but she sure doesn’t like other dogs getting into her business.” He held out his hand. “It’s great to meet you after all this time! I’m Michael, and I own this store.” I dropped my hand and stared at him, dumbfounded. “Seriously? Your name is Michael and you own a shop called Pete’s Pets?” His blue-green eyes sparkled. “Well, I wanted a memorable name, and all I could think of for Michael was Michael’s Magpies. That name seemed to seriously limit my clientele. Besides, Pete’s Pets was catchier.” He winked and smiled wider. The crinkles around his eyes hinted that he smiled a lot. I laughed in spite of myself and hoped my eyes were wrinkle free. Michael might not be my type, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t look irresistible. He turned around to grab a crate, and I got a good look from behind. A sense of humor and a nice rear. Really too bad about the beard. When he turned back toward me, those same eyes sparkled flirtatiously. “You know, we small business owners should help each other out. I’d like to learn more about yoga.” He flashed a beguiling smile. “Want to go out for coffee some time?” Crooked smile or not, I wasn’t fooled. He clearly had no interest in perfecting his Downward Dog, or discussing the cat chow business, for that matter. The business he had in mind was of a more romantic nature. The thought of spending time with him was appealing. He was obviously intelligent, except for the crazy idea he had of running his own business. And he might even be attractive underneath all that facial hair. For a blissful moment, I allowed myself the luxury of day17
dreaming. I imagined sharing a bottle of cool, crisp Chardonnay, curled up next to a roaring fire. I mentally snuggled in close to his broad chest, hugged his lean waist, and leaned in to kiss his … furcovered lips. Nope. That ruined it. The mental image of all those tiny microbes swarming from his face to mine interrupted my daydream and brought me back to reality. I didn’t know what lurked in that disorganized tangle of facial hair, and I wasn’t about to find out the hard way. I just couldn’t shake the subtle wave of nausea. “Thanks, but I’m so busy with the studio I barely have time to brush my teeth, let alone go out.” “I hear you,” he replied. “Been there myself. In fact, I’m planning to hire some help soon, if you know anyone interested. The pay will be crap, but I hear the boss is fabulous.” I laughed in spite of myself. “As for that coffee, I figure it never hurts to ask.” He winked. “You have to like a dog lover.” I winked right back. “Maybe you’ll meet one someday.” Ultimately, he sold me an extra-large collapsible wire crate that would hold Bella during the day and fold flat for storage behind the studio at night. The extra-large crate came with an extra-large price tag, but I swallowed hard and gave him my credit card, silently praying that the early morning yoga class would fill the next month. Either that or I’d have to keep the thermostat set pretty low this winter. I crossed my fingers and hoped that, like I’d been taught, everything happened for a reason. Maybe there’d be a silver lining in all this. After all, hot yoga was all the current rage, but it was bound to die out eventually. Maybe I’d make my fortune in shivering cold yoga. Michael threw in a few dog cookies to soften the blow. Bella was impressed.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I ventured across the street to Mocha Mia for a sacred girl’s coffee date with Rene. While I waited for her to finish ordering one of her thousand-calorie desserts, I sipped my nonfat soy latte and considered—not for the first time—how Mocha Mia’s eclectic décor represented everything I both loved and hated about the Greenwood neighborhood. Sparkling Tiffany-style lamps sat atop ancient, scarred wooden tables, which were surrounded by a mismatched assortment of formal dining room chairs. The café’s exquisitely framed paintings competed for wall space with flyers for local businesses and crude crayon drawings taped up by neighborhood school children. Even the drinks were a study in contrasts. Each artisanal beverage was served in a faded coffee mug that had either been scavenged from a local thrift store or donated by one of the cafés many loyal patrons. Today’s barista had obviously chosen a cartoon theme; my nonfat latte was topped by a Curious George coffee swirl and served in my favorite Looney Tunes mug.
Likewise, the neighborhood around Serenity Yoga seemed trapped between the forces of decay and renewal. Frozen by a poor economy and various environmental factors, the Greenwood business district sandwiched ghetto-like empty buildings in between trendy new construction—like a sort of architectural split personality. Well-dressed professionals and trendy antique shops vied for dominance with addicts and skid-row-type bars. It wasn’t yet clear who would win. I chose to open Serenity Yoga in these unusual surroundings for two very simple reasons: the rent was cheap and the studio’s mixeduse building was only a ten-minute drive from my home in Ballard. I ignored The Loaded Muzzle and the early morning drinkers that frequented it. I ignored the annoying sounds that reverberated through the ceiling from the apartments above. I even ignored the empty storefronts of several recently failed businesses. I should have known better. I would have continued beating myself up over my poor business acumen, but Rene sat down with a flourish and waved her hand in my face. “Earth to Kate … Are you there?” She pointed at my mug. “No fair. You got Tweety Bird.” She deposited her double chocolate mocha on the table with a disappointed thud. “That barista hates me. She always gives me one of the boring brown pottery mugs.” Rene stopped talking long enough to swipe her tongue through a heaping mound of chocolate-drizzled whipped cream. I considered pointing out the whipped cream mustache adorning her upper lip, but I launched into the story of my frustrating week instead. I told Rene all about the studio’s new smelly salesman, his horse-dog companion, and my collection of unread newspapers. I’d finally gotten to the part about buying a giant dog cage, when she shoved her palm in front of my face, interrupting.
“Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You met a perfectly good guy, and you turned down a date because he had a beard? Are you crazy?” Rene’s voice belted across the cafe. She clearly wanted everyone inside Mocha Mia to hear about my transgression. Perhaps even the pedestrians walking by on the sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Rene; she’d been my best friend since grade school. But most of the time I still wanted to kill her. She had this annoying habit of homing in on my nonexistent love life like a heat-seeking missile. I wanted to complain about the annoying drunk outside my studio, not get all goofy-silly about a cute guy in a pet store. I sipped my coffee and jealously eyed the pastry on her plate, tempted by the sweet smell of vanilla icing. Maybe if I stole her cinnamon roll, I could distract her and get back on topic. “I knew I never should have told you,” I replied. “And it wasn’t a date. He invited me to a business meeting. Besides, I’m very happy on my own. The last thing I need is some stupid man distracting me from the business. I barely have time to think as it is!” “Come on! You haven’t been out on a date in more than eight months!” “It hasn’t been that long, has it?” (It had been nine months, three days and seven hours, to be exact.) She shook her head in disgust. “You would have sabotaged a relationship anyway. You know how you are. You fall head over heels for the first couple of weeks, and then suddenly Mr. Perfect turns into Mr. Perfectly Awful.” “It’s not my fault you keep setting me up with jerks.” She looked at me incredulously. “Jerks? Are you kidding me? You’ve gone through every one of Sam’s single friends. And I can assure you, my husband does not hang out with jerks. What was wrong with Troy?” 21
“Too dumb. Couldn’t hold his own in a conversation with a doorstop.” “How about Chris?” “Too boring. Going out with that guy was like taking a triple dose of Ambien with a Valium chaser.” “Sean?” “Too rich. What do I have in common with a guy who owns a yacht named Pocket Change and flies to Vail every other weekend?” “OK, what about Carl? Surely, you can’t find fault with him.” “That guy was a football fanatic. I have no intention of spending my Sunday afternoons hanging out with a bunch of beer-drinking, junk-food-belching sports nuts in their man cave. Spare me.” Rene glared at me in frustration. “You dated him for two weeks in April. There was no football. You look for any excuse to dump and run. Ever since your father died, I swear you’ve become commitment phobic.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Rene didn’t realize it, but she was getting a little too close to the truth. Make no mistake, I enjoyed a fun night out with a guy as much as the next girl. But ever since that dreadful night with my father, I couldn’t stand the thought of relying on someone else—or having him rely on me. “I am not commitment phobic, I assure you. I simply have relationship ADD.” Rene rolled her eyes. “Seriously,” I continued. “Give me a break. I just haven’t met the right guy yet. But when I do, I can assure you his face will be clean-shaven and baby smooth.” I leaned back and took a deep swig of coffee. “You know, ever since you married Sam, you’ve become obsessed with setting up all of your friends. Just because you’re Mrs. Marital Bliss doesn’t mean the rest of us have to join you.”
“I know, but I do worry about you,” she said, sighing. “You’re not getting any younger, you know.” “When did thirty-two become an old maid?” Rene pretended not to hear me. “And you spend waaay too much time in that yoga studio. You’re not the only teacher there, you know.” “Maybe not, but the other instructors only teach a few classes a week, and they certainly don’t help manage the studio. I can barely get them to take out the garbage.” “Come on, Kate. You don’t have to personally oversee everything, and you know it. Frankly, I’m beginning to think that you bury yourself in work to avoid dealing with your own issues.” She was right, of course. But that didn’t mean I had to admit it. “How can I possibly avoid my own ‘issues’ when I have you to remind me of them? Besides, it’s hard to meet people unless you hang out in bars or join some online dating service. Neither of those is really my thing. How am I supposed to meet someone?” “That’s exactly my point!” she said, scowling. “You claim you can’t date anyone from the studio, yet you spend all of your time there. This pet store guy may have been your last chance. I don’t want to visit you ten years from now only to be surrounded by a hundred cats. You may not mind being the crazy cat lady, but I’m allergic!” “I don’t even own one cat, Rene. But I do own a business. And in spite of what you seem to think, the studio needs my attention more than I need any man.” If I had any hope of getting out of this coffee shop with my ego intact, I needed to change the subject. “Speaking of which, are you coming to flow yoga tonight?” “Yes, I guess I’d better,” Rene replied, eating the last bite of pastry and licking the frosting-coated whipped cream off her lips. “I love these sticky buns, but they stick right on my ass. I’ve got to work off the calories somehow. You know, I love your studio, but 23
you really do need to turn up the heat. Nothing like an hour or two of hot yoga to sweat all those nasty carbs out of your thighs.” Another reason to hate Rene. As long as I’d known her, I’d never noticed an ounce of body fat mar those perfect legs. She ate cinnamon rolls, I crunched celery. She had the kind of body found in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, I had thunder thighs. Hmm … Maybe she had a point about that hot yoga thing … “Now finish up that disgusting soy latte and let’s get going. I’ve got a pet store owner to check out. If you’re not going out with him, maybe one of my other friends will.” _____ Time zipped by, and before I knew it, three weeks had passed. The great crate experiment with Bella went reasonably well. Caging Bella like a zoo animal wasn’t the most elegant solution, but the setup cut down on the daily noise and drama, which were my main concerns. After all, how could students find their internal Zen if they were forced to inhale flying fur before breath practice and listen to dog fights during meditation? Bella still barked occasionally, but significantly less than before. She seemed basically happy as long as she could be close to George. For his part, George kept to his selling schedule like a full-time corporate job. He’d arrive at eleven each morning and sell until seven at night. Over time, I stopped noticing his pungent aroma and started looking forward to seeing his friendly face outside my window. I felt oddly comforted by his presence—as if I had a private security guard on duty from eleven to seven every day. George assured me that he and Bella watched out for me; that they kept
would-be prowlers from sneaking in the finicky front door when I wasn’t looking. He wasn’t perfect, by any means, but he stayed relatively sober each day until his selling shift ended. Then he ambled off with Bella and a bottle for his evening reprieve from the struggles of daily life. If I hadn’t known he was destroying his health and shortening his life span, I would have found a sort of symmetry and beauty to the simplicity of his existence. Every now and then, I’d pick up sandwiches for us at the PhinneyWood Market. On sunny days George, Bella, and I packed up our lunches and headed to Greenwood Park, a small oasis of green a few blocks north of the studio. This hidden, two-acre play space restored my faith in the untapped potential of the Greenwood community. Adopted by a group of dedicated neighborhood activists, Greenwood Park had recently been transformed from the run-down site of a defunct nursery to a beautifully maintained community gathering place. The park’s many amenities included something for everyone: Pea-Patch vegetable gardens, multi-use sport courts, futuristic-looking children’s play areas, and a large open lawn suitable for Frisbee, volleyball, and spirited games of fetch. But for the three of us, Greenwood Park was simply a tranquil place to relax and spend precious minutes chatting in the shade. I liked listening to George’s stories, and he obviously loved telling them. Much to my surprise, he had owned a business. “It was one of those dot com startups that were all the rage in the late nineties. I started the company out of my house, which wasn’t all that unusual back then.” He fed Bella the last bite of his ham and cheese sandwich. “What was unusual was that we almost
made it. We were this close.” He held up a thumb and forefinger about a quarter inch apart. “We worked night and day, and I never had so much fun in my life. I wasn’t as young as most of the kids forming the startups in those days, but I could work twice as hard. My partner and I built the company to over fifty employees in three short years. We were growing so fast we could barely keep up.” He smiled and looked wistfully off into the distance. Although he gazed toward the playground, his eyes seemed blank—as if he had traveled to some better, faraway place. I hated to make him return, but I wanted to hear the end of the story. “What happened?” He turned back and shrugged. “Bad luck combined with bad decisions, I guess. First the tech market bit the dirt; then our investors got nervous. So I took a couple of creative financing risks and, well, let’s just say they didn’t pay off. We went bankrupt almost overnight.” His voice grew sad. “Broke my heart the day I had to tell everyone we were closing the doors.” As I listened to George’s story, my heart broke too, for him and for others like him. The failure he described could happen to anyone, even me. Being forced out of business was my worst nightmare—one that might soon come true, if business at the studio didn’t pick up. I didn’t know how to help, so I kept listening, hoping that would be enough. “My partner was furious. He never understood the financial side of the business, and to be honest, I didn’t tell him about our money issues until it was too late.” George paused, shaking his head. “Helluva way to lose a friend. “But the worst part was telling those fifty-three people that they were out of a job. Several of them had families to support. Every 26
single one of them had put 110 percent into building the company, assuming their hard work would pay off in the end.” He rubbed his eyes, as if even remembering that day left him exhausted. “All for nothing.” He stared at the ground for a full minute, the laughter of children paradoxically filling the silence. When he continued, his voice sounded heavy, defeated. “That night I went out and got plastered for the first time. Just couldn’t take how I had let all those people down. One drink became two, became three. The next night, three drinks became four, and well, the rest is history.” He absently stroked Bella’s fur. “My biggest regret is what my drinking did to my family. My wife finally gave up and divorced me, not that I blame her. I wasn’t exactly a good husband. I got drunk every night and disappeared for days at a time. She gave me plenty of chances to go into rehab, and I said no to every one of them. Last I heard, she had remarried and moved to Denver. I haven’t spoken to my daughter in years.” As his voice trailed off, I sensed an opportunity. Maybe alcoholism and homelessness didn’t have to be the end of his story. “What about now? Have you considered getting help? Your wife may have moved on, but I’m sure your daughter would love to see you again. It’s not too late, you know.” He sighed. “I keep thinking that one day I’ll get my act together. But honestly, for now this life suits me. I sort of like disappearing into the woodwork. Nobody’s counting on me, except Miss Bella here.” He patted her affectionately. “No rent to pay, no employees’ lives to ruin. Heck, I even get to meet nice people like you occasionally.” I smiled. People didn’t call me nice every day. “Besides, I can’t possibly go into rehab now. What would happen to Bella? I may not be much, but I’m all she’s got.” Bella stared 27
steadily at him, drooling and hoping for one last morsel. He ran his hand down her side. “I’m getting worried about her, though. Does she look skinnier to you?” I looked more closely; she did look thinner. Bella had been skinny the first day I saw her, but not like this. Her ribs clearly showed, and her formerly shiny black fur appeared dull and brown. Even her eyes seemed sadder, more desperate somehow. “Now that you mention it, yes,” I replied. “If you’re having trouble affording food, I can always help out a little.” I had my own financial worries, but an extra ten or twenty dollars a month wouldn’t break me. “Well, you know I never look a gift anything in the mouth, so if you want to buy us some dog food, I sure as heck won’t stop you. But she’s not underfed, believe you me. She eats better than I do.” He touched his nose to Bella’s and cooed. “I feed you lots, don’t I, Missy Girl?” He turned back to me. “But she’s always ravenous and she’s getting grumpier, too. She never liked other dogs much, but she only used to bark when they got in her face. Now she goes after them even when they’re clear across the street. And she keeps getting skinnier and skinnier. At first I thought she was having another growing spurt, but this seems different. I even caught her eating dirt yesterday.” “Wait a minute. You mean she’s not done growing yet?” That wasn’t the most relevant comment I could make, but I couldn’t help but be dumbfounded. The Bella-beast was already ridiculously large. George smiled with obvious pride. “She’s a big one, isn’t she? A vet told me once that she’d be 100 pounds by the time she stopped growing. I think she could top that. She’s got at least six months’ growth left in her. I’ll bet she hits 110. She’s a purebred shepherd, but some days, I swear she’s part malamute.” 28
More like part horse. “And she’s a smart one, too,” he continued. “It only took me twenty minutes to teach her to ‘say hello.’” Bella looked up expectantly at the familiar command. “But I am worried about her, and people have started to harass me about her weight. They assume I’m intentionally starving her or that I can’t afford to feed her. A couple have even threatened to turn me in to the Humane Society.” He scowled, clearly offended. “As if I’d ever hurt Bella!” “Anything I can do to help?” “Thanks, but I don’t think so. I’m taking her to the free vet clinic by Southcenter next weekend. Hopefully they’ll figure out what’s going on.” “Next weekend?” From what George described, I was afraid Bella might not make it that long. “I’d like to take her in sooner, but they’re only open one weekend a month.” I hesitated, vacillating between idealism and realism. A true friend would offer to pay for an earlier appointment. But I had my own money issues. “I wish I could help but—” George responded with an insincere smile. “Don’t you worry, ma’am. Bella likes the folks at the free clinic, and they’re good with her. I wouldn’t take her anywhere else.” “How are you going to get Bella all the way to Southcenter?” I could at least offer him a ride. “It’s pretty easy, actually. Bella loves riding the bus. The drivers even keep a stash of cookies for her. We’ll get there, no problem.” I guiltily counted the days until that fateful appointment. Bella got alarmingly thinner, and George’s face grew more concerned. The angry words outside my door changed from “Control that beast!” to “If you can’t afford a dog, you shouldn’t have one!” 29
I wanted to throw open the door and tell those obnoxious strangers what they could do with their rude opinions. I stopped myself only by imagining the headline: “Yoga Teacher Starts Fist Fight Outside Studio.” I even tried practicing loving-kindness meditation. But instead of feeling waves of love flow from my heart, I felt white-hot daggers of indignation shoot from my eye sockets. Buddha needn’t fear for his job any time soon. Saturday finally arrived. I waved goodbye, sent George positive energy, and waited, hoping for good news. I looked for George Saturday evening, to no avail. Saturday turned into Sunday, turned into Monday, turned into Tuesday. Although I searched for him every day at eleven, he failed to show up for his route. Unaccountably depressed and fearing the worst, I went on with my life. What else could I do?
“You have got to be kidding me,” I muttered. I punched the numbers in again, but the studio’s calculator stubbornly refused to change its mind. “This can’t be right. How can we possibly be down to $300 in the studio account? “No new candles this month, I guess. Maybe I’ll ask students to reuse paper cups and bring their own toilet paper.” I tossed the traitorous device to the side. Grumbling felt good, but it didn’t change the bottom line. My bank account gave the phrase going for broke a whole new meaning. For the 937th time, I wondered what malfunctioning brain synapse compelled me, of all people, to open a yoga studio. The day I got my foot behind my head would be the day I chopped it off at the ankle, and my short, stubby legs hardly merited the cover of Yoga Journal. As for achieving yoga’s supposed blissful state of samadhi? Well, let’s just say that I had yet to discover the path to enlightenment. But in life’s toughest times, yoga kept me going.
So when my father passed away and left me his house and a small inheritance, the choice seemed obvious. I quit my stable, good-paying, full-benefits job and opened Serenity Yoga. I started by designing the studio’s layout and décor, naïvely agonizing over every detail. I shopped for hours at New Age stores all across Seattle, looking for the perfect selection of door chimes, water fountains, meditation cushions, and Tibetan singing bowls. I replaced the carpeting in the studio’s single practice room with solid maple flooring and strategically placed colorful pots filled with tropical plants all around the reception area. I even hung motivational artwork that implored my students to “live well, laugh often, and love much.” At the time, I thought every detail was crucial. At the time, I thought I was creating a sanctuary of physical and emotional healing. I can only plead temporary insanity. As my accountant had told me several times since, anyone with half a brain would have realized that I was constructing a 1,500square-foot money pit. Forget dining on caviar and sipping Dom Perignon. At the rate I was going, Top Ramen and tap water would soon become unaffordable luxuries. Now that I was lucid again, one thing was brutally clear: teaching yoga was the most rewarding way to go broke on the planet. Yoga was a six-billion-dollar-a-year industry, so someone out there was obviously making money. Maybe the millionaires all operated those mega “hot box” yoga studios popping up everywhere. Or perhaps the riches were found in producing DVDs and selling designer yoga duds. Yoga’s megarich certainly weren’t getting that way running small neighborhood studios. Fortunately, I had a full schedule of private clients the rest of the week. If none of them canceled and I timed things perfectly, I might 32
not have to raid my personal savings account again. Alicia arrived right on time, as usual. “Hey, Alicia. It’s great to see you.” My words were true, for multiple reasons. Alicia was one of my favorite students, and I always enjoyed spending time with her. But more relevant to my current predicament, Alicia was also the studio’s landlord. Landlord or not, broke tenant or not, I hesitated. Today wasn’t one of Alicia’s good days. She looked pale, tired, and significantly older than her true age of thirty-three, and her normally perfectly tailored clothes hung on her frame like hand-me-downs from a heavier sister. I gritted my teeth and plunged ahead anyway. “I hate to ask this, but money’s a little tight this month. Can I give you the rent check a few days late?” I expected at least token resistance, especially since this was the second time I’d asked in four months. But Alicia smiled and said, “Sure. Don’t worry about it. I’ll talk to my bookkeeper and let him know. And I’ll make sure he waives the late fee again.” I sighed in relief. “Thank you. I’ll get the check to you as soon as I can. I hope I’m not causing you any problems.” “Don’t be silly,” she said as she rolled out her mat. “Waiting a week or two for your rent money is the least of my concerns. I’m happy to help.” She was right. About money being the least of her concerns, that is. Calling Alicia rich would have been an understatement. But as Dad used to say, money can’t buy everything. In her case, money couldn’t buy time—at least not enough of it. Alicia was diagnosed with stage IV malignant melanoma last February. She celebrated her thirty-third birthday hooked up to an intravenous cocktail of immunosuppressing, hair-destroying experimental 33
drugs at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Chemo or not, the survival rate for her condition was so low that her doctors didn’t even talk about it, except in hushed tones when they thought she couldn’t overhear. I looked at those statistics myself. In most cases, Alicia’s doctors were probably right. In her case, however, those highly schooled, super-experienced medical professionals might just be mistaken. Alicia was determined to fight. And I’d seen too many miracles to completely discount her. She used to love strong yoga practices, and I envied her ability to do complex balance poses with seeming grace and ease. Now she practiced yoga in an attempt to find that same grace and ease in the balance of her daily living. From what I’d seen, her inner strength put her former physical capabilities to shame. I led her through a gentle restorative sequence designed to support her struggling immune system. We began with a few cycles of Nadi Sodhana—a breath practice also known as Alternate Nostril Breathing—to balance Alicia’s energy system and focus her mind. After a few minutes, we added some simple, gentle movements. Our first pose was Chakravakasana, loosely translated as Sunbird Pose. Alicia had done this posture dozens of times in the past, but I verbally coached each repetition anyway, hoping my voice would drown out any worries that might be echoing through her mind. “Please come to hands and knees.” She folded a blanket and placed it under her kneecaps, then positioned her palms on the floor underneath her shoulders. “As you inhale, extend your spine, lengthening it from the crown of your head to the tip of your tailbone.” Alicia’s spine grew subtly longer. “As you exhale, pull in your belly and move your hips back toward your heels.” She moved her hips
toward her feet, bent her elbows, and rested her forehead on the floor in a position called Child’s Pose. I continued coaching her. “On your next inhale, come back to hands and knees. Keep your elbows soft and your belly lightly engaged. Continue this motion, linking every movement with your breath. Each inhale, return to hands and knees; each exhale, fold back to Child’s Pose.” As Alicia moved, her breath became slower and subtly deeper; the chemo-induced stiffness eased from her joints; the tired-looking wrinkles diminished around her eyes. I would even have sworn that her prana—yoga’s invisible life-force energy—grew stronger. Alicia didn’t have much stamina, so I kept our practice short. But that didn’t make it any less powerful. By the time I rang the chimes at the end of our session, she seemed utterly transformed. She looked lighter—softer somehow. The circles under her eyes were less pronounced; a slight smile graced her lips. Our time together fed her in ways more powerful than food, rest, or a cabinet full of prescription medication ever could. Working with Alicia reminded me why, in spite of its challenges, I loved my profession. We said our goodbyes as Alicia reached for the door. She paused after opening it, looking confused. “Didn’t you lock up before we started?” “I thought so, but the door must have stuck. It’s been giving us some trouble lately.” Alicia pushed, pulled, and rattled the handle in a futile effort to lock it. “Kate, I wish you had told me. This isn’t safe. I’ll have Jake come by tomorrow to take a look.” Oh no, not Jake. I resisted an urge to hide behind the display of yoga blocks. Even the thought of spending time alone with Alicia’s husband, Jake the Jerk, made the hair on my arms stand up. 35
OK, so his last name wasn’t actually “the Jerk.” I added that part. To be honest, I’d never liked Jake, or his dark brown goatee, either. But until recently, I hadn’t seen him very often. All that changed the day Alicia received her diagnosis. She quit her full-time job as property manager to become a full-time cancer fighter. Jake hired himself as her replacement. I had no idea what Alicia saw in Jake, but she wasn’t alone. My female students used adjectives like gorgeous, funny, interesting, and intelligent to describe him. I used words like sleazy and usedcar salesman. He stood a little too close, touched a little too much, and volunteered to come by after hours a little too often for my comfort. So when the toilet overflowed, the heat stopped working, or anything else in the studio broke down, I did whatever I could to avoid calling him. I would have rather waded through waist-high raw sewage than spend an hour alone with that man. Dealing with a finicky front door was nothing. “Don’t worry about it, Alicia. All you have to do is jiggle it to the right, push quickly to the left, then pull it out and snap! There it goes, right into place!” For once the gods were with me. Right on cue, the door finally latched shut. Alicia looked skeptical. “Honestly, it’s no trouble at all.” I fibbed. Fixing that door had been on my to-do list for weeks. “Please don’t bother Jake. I know he’s busy, and I don’t want him wasting his free time over here.” Alicia furrowed her brow. “Well, I don’t know … I’d feel responsible if something happened.” “Seriously, it hardly ever causes problems. Maybe it’s extra humid today.” I kept talking before she could reply. “I promise, if it causes any more trouble at all, I’ll give Jake a call. Besides, I’ve already spo36
ken to the other instructors. Everyone knows to double-check the door before they leave. And if they forget, well, we don’t have anything here worth stealing, anyway.” I gave her my most confident smile. Lying didn’t count if you crossed your fingers, right? Alicia wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t have enough energy to argue, either. So I successfully avoided spending time alone with Jake, while the door continued to squeak, stick, pop open, and otherwise annoy the heck out of me. It seemed like a good trade-off at the time.